MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s defense minister on Thursday ordered troops to return to their permanent bases after massive exercises in Crimea that involved dozens of navy ships, hundreds of warplanes and thousands of soldiers in a demonstration of strength amid tensions with Ukraine.
After watching the exercises, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu declared the maneuvers to be over and ordered the military to pull troops participating in the maneuvers in Crimea and western Russia back to their permanent bases.
“I consider the objectives of the rapid readiness check accomplished,” said Shoigu. “The troops showed their defense capabilities and I decided to complete the exercises in the military districts of the South and the West.”
Shoigu said troops should return to their bases by May 1, but he also ordered heavy weapons to be kept in western Russia as part of the exercises for another massive military exercise later this year.
Shoigu said they should remain at the Pogonovo shooting range, in southwestern Voronezh. The vast expanse is located 160 kilometers (about 100 miles) east of the Ukrainian border.
The increase in Russian troops near Ukraine, which occurred amid growing violations of a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, raised concerns in the West, which asked the Kremlin to withdraw its forces.
The Russian military did not report the number of additional troops that were transferred to Crimea and parts of southwest Russia near Ukraine, and it was not clear from Shoigu’s statement whether they would all be withdrawn.
The US and NATO said Russian growth near Ukraine was the biggest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and gave support to separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said the maneuvers in Crimea involved more than 60 ships, more than 10,000 soldiers, about 200 aircraft and about 1,200 military vehicles.
The exercise featured the landing of more than 2,000 paratroopers and 60 military vehicles on Thursday. Fighter planes covered the airborne operation.
Shoigu flew in a helicopter over the Opuk shooting range in Crimea to oversee the exercise. He later declared the exercises closed, but ordered the military to be ready to respond to any “adverse developments” during NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 exercise.
Last week, Russia announced it would close large areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign navy ships and state-owned vessels by November, a move that drew Ukrainian protests and raised Western concerns. Russia also announced restrictions on flights near Crimea this week, arguing that they are in full compliance with international law.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned on Tuesday that the Russian advance on the border continues and “is expected to reach a combined force of more than 120,000 soldiers” in about a week and called on the West to step up sanctions against Moscow.
Moscow rejected Ukrainian and Western concerns about the increase, arguing that it is free to deploy its forces anywhere on Russian territory and claiming that they do not threaten anyone. But at the same time, the Kremlin has severely warned Ukrainian authorities against trying to use force to regain control of the rebel east, where seven years of fighting has killed more than 14,000, saying Russia could be forced to intervene to protect civilians in the region. .
Amid tensions, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed on Wednesday a law allowing reservists to be summoned for military service without announcing a mobilization. The new law will make it possible to quickly equip the military with reservists, “significantly increasing their combat effectiveness during military aggression,” Zelensky’s office said in a statement.